It's on a run out to Herschelle and back to fetch supplies Lafayette needs for the weekend specials that Sam Merlotte finds the stranger. Further than he'd usually go for supplies but Lafayette is coming off the back end of something ugly that he'd made Sam very clear he didn't want to talk about and if cooking something a little more complex than gumbo is gonna cheer him up then that's fine with Sam.
And no bones about it, the man can cook. He'd asked for ingredients Sam can't pronounce, let alone spell. Truth be known Sam is a little nervous. He'll eat anything himself, hell, Lafayette made him try offal in an Ethiopian restaurant in New Orleans once a few years back when they were on a week-long LSD bender (the last of Sam's life, he'd decided at the end) and yeah, as it turned out, not that bad. But the locals can be picky. They like their crumbed, fried crap and burgers the special way Layfayette does them, with paprika charred onto the surface.
Let 'em starve, he thinks, remembering the smell of the truffle oil.
The stranger isn't cautious enough, standing there on a blind shoulder. Steam pours out from beneath the hood of his car and his face is wide open and shocked and also way too believing. It looks to Sam like the vehicular catastrophe is an anticipated one and, also, that this is a man who is maybe getting a little too used to catastrophes in general.
Sorta like he was maybe thinking now would be a good time to stop hoping for the best.
Sam pulls over and because he is not the incautious type he sets out a bright orange traffic cone he's had in his trunk since he took it from a drunk alter boy who was wearing it as a hat a couple weeks back. He was gonna give it to Jason Stackhouse just as soon as he got the chance but guessed it was lucky enough that he hadn't got around to it because here was a chance to put it to good use.
"Heya, stranger," he calls. "Looks like you got trouble."
The man looks up at last. "No," he answers, shaking his head, "trouble's got me. By the fucking balls. Again," and that shouldn't be the first inkling Sam gets that the man isn't a local, but it is. The accent and the odd turn of phrase.
Not for the first time Sam finds himself reflecting on the nature of small town Louisiana and the types who call it home. Two kinds of folk living down here in the bayou; those who were born here, and those on the run and with nowhere left to go. That's the type that end up in small town Louisiana or the empty top end of Alaska and survive there, because they can, and because they are out of more attractive options.
"Sam." Sam extends a hand and is pleased that the stranger meets his eyes and shakes his hand firmly because he knows city folk can be a little weak and a little shifty, and he wants this man to be neither. "Sam Merlotte. From Bon Temps, a little ways further west."
"Rick," the man says. "Someone in Bon Temps got a tow truck you can send back for me?"
"Sure," Sam says back, "but no need. I can tow you back. Won't even charge you City Guy tax, and Otis woulda."
Rick seems surprised but he nods firmly, dark eyes widening suddenly. Looks like this is the best offer he's had in a while and fuck, maybe it is. He doesn't look like he's rolling in good luck or the kindness of strangers. "Appreciate it. Thanks."
Together they turn Rick's station wagon around and hook it to the back of Sam's truck, and they'll maybe have to drive a little slower than Sam usually likes to but he's nothing if not curious about his fellow man.
This particular fellow man is an especially interesting specimen. A slow drive back sounds just fine.
Sam prides himself on an ability to read people, even sniff them out a little; no first impression is ever perfect, but Sam's are usually pretty spot on. But Rick exudes no vibes. On the run, sure, and he's gonna be out of money soon, and he's been out of luck a while, but what trouble is he running from? Sam smells no guilt; he's not in trouble of the sort that can get you picked up by the highway patrol or he wouldn't have taken the highway. He's between thirty-five and forty; maybe after some sleep and good food, thirty-five would be a good guess. Strong, but a little thin, right now. He smells faintly of bourbon and the road.
Maybe it's matters of the heart.
Rick is quiet, watching out the window.
"Huh?" Rick turns and Sam finds himself studying his face.
"Is it 'Rick' like 'Madonna' or you got a last name too?"
"Salt…" Rick coughs on nothing and Sam's curiosity is piqued again. "-vatore. Salvatore. Sorry."
Huh. A lie. Still, Sam is a bartender in small town Louisiana and he doesn't get paid in honesty, just cash. It's interesting, though. Told the truth about his first name, lied about the last. Rick squints like he wished he didn't say what he said. Picked the wrong name, maybe.
"You got family in the area?"
This is a question that doesn't need an answer and Rick answers it by giving Sam an incredulous look.
"Not many reasons people come down here," Sam admits. He slows his truck to take a tight corner a little wide, allowing for the fishtailing of Rick's car.
"Tell me, Sam. Do your reasons for arriving in small-town Louisiana get taken down in the town ledger somewhere? Or are they allowed to be your own?"
Rick looks damn near pissed. It's sorta cute. Sam throws his head back and roars with laughter. "No sir, you get to keep 'em to yourself. But you can't stop folks from wonderin'. Sorry, man," he says, reaching to rest his hand briefly on Rick's shoulder. "Professional hazard."
Says this last a little stumbly, because Rick pushes his shoulder against the hand like he hasn't been touched in an age. For a long second Sam thinks Rick might cry, and he prepares mentally to pull up at the next off-ramp rest stop ahead.
Sam's in no rush. If a man needs a little time to cry, he just needs it, that's all.
Sam tightens his hand over Rick's shoulder.
"You okay, man?"
Rick comes back to himself all at once, sitting up straighter. "Yeah. I'm fine."
You look it, Sam thinks, but doesn't say.
"I know. Radiator. I'm amazed it got me this far, to tell you the truth." Rick's eyes look a little haunted again. "Can you fix it?"
Otis narrows his eyes, spits on the floor, close to Rick's shoe. "'m I a mechanic, boy? Course I c'n fix it."
Rick flinches, not at the rust colored phlegm by his toe but at his own rudeness. "I didn't mean it like that. Sorry. Just. How much will it cost me? How soon could you do it?"
"Gotta get the parts. Be a few days, a week, longer, who c'n tell. Mebbe cost y' a grand. Mebbe more, mebbe less."
Rick looks a bit like he got struck by lightening or maybe just God's finger came right down out of the clouds and squashed him flat. "Right," he says. "Right." After a pause, he adds "right."
"You got a helluva stutter there, boy," Otis says. "I ain't got room fer a junker on my lot. I'll leave word at Merlotte's when I got yer parts and you c'n bring 'er back."
Otis turns and hauls his skinny, overalls-clad ass back into his workshop, pausing twice to spit for good measure. Sam chances a hand again. Claps it against Rick's shoulder.
Rick turns, and his face has clouded now.
"Whadya gonna do?" Sam asks.
Rick looks like he might fall over but he doesn't, he stands. Keeps standing like it's not even hard.
"I could dump the car. Buy a bus ticket. Except I can't dump the fucking piece of shit car. Because it's the only thing I own and all my stuff's in it. I can't stay here." Rick kicks the tyre but not like he means it. "And I have nowhere to go."
Sam nods wisely. "Want my opinion?"
Rick offers a strangled laugh. "Why the fuck not?"
"If you've got nowhere to go and no way to get there, next best thing seems to me to be to just stay put."
Rick closes the hood. "You get that shit out of a Christmas cracker?"
"I'm a goddamn genius, Salvatore." Sam opens Rick's car door, crosses to his own. "Don't ever forget it."
When Rick flinches, Sam promises himself he won't use the name again.
"You know somewhere I can park the 'junker'?" Rick asks, resigned. He's not going anywhere, not in a hurry and Sam's glad, selfishly glad because Rick has a story Sam wants to hear and lips Sam wants to kiss. Arms he wants to get lost in. Wounds Sam wants to heal.
"Out the back of my place. Merlotte's. Best bar in the parish probably and the best food by a wide margin, thanks to the culinary genius of my right hand man Lafayette. Parking lot has plenty of room."
They've been silent long minutes, Sam pointing out the occasional land mark ("Church. Graveyard. Church. Graveyard. And – actually, no, I'll tell you 'bout that when you've got a decent meal in you") and Rick chewing on his bottom lip and mumbling from time to time about how fucked things are.
At last they reach the bar and it's quiet enough, after the lunch rush, so they dump Rick's car out in the parking lot and Sam guides him inside. Rick looks around, seems surprised, pleased too, and Sam likes the lazy grin that settles across his features, thinks maybe that's more the man Rick usually is, when the world isn't falling around his ears. He grins at the posters on the walls, the selection on the jukebox. "Nice place."
Rick takes a seat at the bar, a little tentative. Smiles gently at Tara Thornton, who is polishing a glass (or at least going through the motions). "Hello," he says, nodding, and maybe he's expecting some small town grace but Tara sneers.
"Whoever the fuck you are," she answers, and looks away again. Freshly braided corn rows in her hair, ending in long plaits that flip about like snakes as she stalks to the other end of the bar.
"It's a fuckin' bar, Tara," Sam reminds her. "Customers. You're s'posed to be nice." He registers a flash of irritation but Tara turns away. He'd fire her, but she has nowhere to go.
He pours Rick a good measure of bourbon – not his cheapest, and a beer to wash it down with. Rick looks a little confused. Cocks his head at Sam and Sam can't help but think of all the strays Merlotte's bar has taken in over the years. Rick might be the most appealing of them all.
"'m a bartender, man. If I can't tell what a man drinks when he needs a drink I'm doing the wrong fucking job."
Leaving Rick to his thoughts Sam returns to his truck to collect the rest of the supplies for Lafayette. When he reaches the back door Lafayette is leaning against the door jamb, resplendent in bright blue eye shadow that makes his skin look even blacker, false eyelashes and gold lamé and with his lip curled into a fine smirk.
"Mon cher, who is that tall drink of water crying into his bourbon? And can I slice off a piece when you're done?"
"Leave him alone, Lafayette. He's in a bad way." Sam passes Lafayette the grocery bags but Lafayette steps back; carrying groceries might be a little too much like manual labour for him, maybe. "Got yer… stuff." Sam ignores Lafayette's delighted grin the way he ignores everything he doesn't want to know.
"Puppy love. Hmm-hmm."
Sam puts the bags on the counter and turns to the Princess of Bon Temps. Crosses his arms over his well-muscled chest and tries to pretend Lafayette isn't loving the whole tableau. "You listen to me, Lafayette. He's a stranger and he's in trouble. Don't know what kind. He's passin' through and I won't stand for you makin' him uncomfortable with all your little remarks."
Lafayette grins and swallows whatever comment is curled there on his tongue. Pretends to zip his lip. "I can mind my bidness. But Sam Merlotte… that boy fine. If I ain't gonna get a crack tell me at least you is."
Sam shakes his head, stalks away to the office to check who's due for the night shift. To count the bottles in the store room and maybe get his head a little clear.
Course, the best way to get his head clear is to be something else for a while, be a dog, go for a run, tear through the forest and through the back yards. Sam doesn't much like being a bird but sometimes when he is, and when he feels his shoulders stretch so impossibly wide, he wonders why he doesn't do it more often; problem is the thinking. When a dog thinks he thinks in terms of joy, his favourite person, his favourite tree to piss against, his favourite food. When a bird thinks he thinks in terms of predator and prey, and that doesn't suit Sam Merlotte.
(It should be said, Sam Merlotte will never be a cat. Not for a single minute.)
There is a bar needs running and a stranger needs feeding and someone has to rewrite the specials board because no one can read Lafayette's goddamn handwriting, and so running in the forest will have to wait.
When Sam returns to the bar, Rick is gone, and his heart stutters a little.
"Get a fuckin' grip, Sam, my god." Tara's accent is as broad as the Mississippi and about as filthy, too; 'get a ferkin' grip, Sam, mah gahd.' "He went to get some shit out of his car."
Tara rolls her eyes and pours pitchers of Natty Boh and PBR for the road construction crew that have just waltzed in, Jason Stackhouse strutting and preening at the front. Rick trails in a long beat behind them with a knapsack, returns to his seat at the bar and pulls a road atlas out, notebook and pen.
(Perhaps he's calculating how far he has to go before he drops off the edge of civilisation altogether. Sam thinks he should offer some help; the edge of Reynard Parish is as far as any man needs to go to never be found again.)
Bills and invoices and orders and a thousand other kinds of paperwork. Wistful, Sam remembers when the place was barely making ends meet and he actually got to work behind the bar. It's been a few hours since he so much as poked his head out.
Tara flies in looking more mussed than usual (and to be fair, 'usual' is pretty mussed). "We need you."
Sam actually feels cheered and the bar, it must be said, is full. Sam immediately jumps behind the taps and starts to serve. Tara is alongside him, swearing and muttering under her breath. "No we don't have any fuckin' pinot grigio. What kind of a fuckin' place you think this is? My god." Tara turns to Sam, glaring so bad she could light fires. "Sookie has vampire shit goin' on. For a fuckin' change. She ain't comin' in."
Fucking Sookie Stackhouse.
"You call anyone?"
"Arlene's already on her way in. Everyone else said no. Fuck, Sam. You need to hire some fuckin' staff."
At the bar, Rick clears his throat. "I can tend bar," he says, quiet, though his face looks a little stricken and Sam thinks maybe hearing someone has 'vampire shit going on' comes as a surprise, maybe a frightening one. Still, help is help. For part of the afternoon Sam had stopped thinking about Rick altogether, and now here he is again; sandy hair and big dark eyes and stubble and the clear need to occupy himself usefully.
"Follow me," Sam says, hauling Rick back to the office to find him a t-shirt. There's got to be some way of distinguishing staff from customers and weirdly, a cheerful smile and a desire to please weren't parts of the uniform Sam could easily convince his staff to wear. Rick's own t-shirt is a little stained at the armpits and the neckline. A uniform shirt fits the bill.
Sam searches through the drawer where the spare t-shirts are kept until he finds one that might fit. When he looks up, Rick is fantastically shirtless, reaching for the t-shirt in Sam's hand.
"It might be a little small," Sam says, helplessly, running his eyes over Rick's chest and arms, and trying not to wish he'd found one a size smaller.
Rick shrugs, taking the t-shirt and reaching over his head (pulling several sets of muscles into sharp relief and making Sam's heart do a little backflip), and it is at this moment Sam sees it.
It's a scar; a series of scars, maybe, layered one over the other; the newest is not yet fully healed, but the oldest are soft white rings and Sam fancies that if he was to reach out and touch it, it would feel like raised ridges of silk against his fingertips.
Vampire bites. Rick's a fang-banger, but who isn't, these days? Although, so many scars. He looks like he was maybe kept for a while. His choice or not, anyone's guess.
Rick notices, hurriedly pulls the t-shirt down to cover his shame as Sam hands him an apron. "Bus the glasses and when you get a second, help out behind the bar. Don't let Tara upset you. Twelve bucks an hour under the table plus tips."
Rick averts his eyes, nods briefly. Turns away.
"Rick?" Sam takes another step forward. "Thanks," he says, touching Rick's shoulder for the third time in a handful of hours, and wondering how it is possible that it already feels like a habit.
The night stays crazy and Tara is in a worse mood than usual.
"Salvatore," she calls, three times, and Rick looks up the second time, and around the third time. He's running the dishwasher and he's doing fine, now he's remembering what to do. It was his job in college maybe.
"Yeah. What?" He's rinsing a cloth under the tap, trying not to meet Tara's eyes. Sam pours another couple of pitchers, and tells himself he'll tell her off in a minute, but Tara says what Sam wishes he could:
"When y'all picked y'self a fake fuckin' name, why'd y'all pick one that A, you don't respond to and B, freaks the fucking shit right out of you?"
Sam expects an argument. Expects Rick to deny he'd lied about his name.
"Because I'm not good under pressure. Call me Rick. I won't forget that." Rick pushes another tray of glasses trough the washer and pauses in front of Tara, expectant. Actual laughter in his eyes.
Sort of impressive, really.
"That bell's the kitchen. There's food for table twelve and Lafayette looks fuckin' pissed. He don't like his food to get cold no matter how pretty he think you are. So hurry the fuck up, Rick." She slams down a tray of drinks, swears at some regulars and Rick turns on his heel to collect the food.
The bar has been closed a good half-hour when Tara barges into the office. "I'm out," she says, grabbing her bag. Sweeping out of the office again.
Sam looks up suddenly. "Wait, wait, Tara." When she turns, irritable, he goes on. "Where's Rick?"
She shrugs. "Ain't his girlfriend or his momma. Maybe he left with Lafayette." It is all she says as she leaves, but her voice is teasing.